Babysitting: a hazardous occupation!

Babysitters can be absolutely invaluable to busy parents: like angels they swoop in, sometimes at short notice, to care for your children and relieve you of chocolate biscuits.

However, it’s not always possible to hire a babysitter from outside the family, especially if the requirement is urgent! So the oldest child is often drafted in to take care of the younger ones.

With media coverage earlier this year of the mother investigated for leaving her 14-year-old son in charge of his three-year-old brother, this is an issue likely to be at the forefront of many parents’ minds.

So, what does the law say? Well, not a great deal. While children who choose to work on newspaper delivery rounds, on farms or in retail jobs are covered and hopefully protected by general and specific health and safety law – notably the Health and Safety (Young Persons) Regulations 1997 – those who choose babysitting as a means of earning money fall outside these laws.

With this in mind, RoSPA and the NSPCC recommend that no one under the age of 16 should be left to care for a baby or toddler. The British Red Cross, which runs babysitting courses, states that participants must have reached their 14th birthday by the time of their final assessment.

However, parents usually know their children best, and will make their own judgements as to whether or not their eldest is mature and responsible enough to look after the young ones. We all know younger children who are wise beyond their years; and equally, we know those in their twenties who shouldn’t be left to care for a pot plant!

Will your babysitter spot the hazards?

So how can parents minimise the risks involved in leaving their older children to care for younger siblings? There’s a good deal of useful information on our freshly updated webpages, so head over there and take a look.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is a relatively new piece of research undertaken at the University of Guelph, Canada, and published in 2010. The original article appeared in the BMJ’s Injury Prevention journal, and the abstract can be viewed online.

The research, entitled “Please keep an eye on your younger sister”: sibling supervision and young children’s risk of unintentional injury took a look at how and why young children were more likely to suffer an injury while being cared for by older siblings than by their parents.

What did the research find?

The study explains why children are more likely to be injured when being supervised by a sibling or young sitter rather than a parent. The research shows how parents identify and remove hazards (such as small objects which could cause choking), while siblings left in charge of their younger brothers and sisters are more likely to play with the objects. This behaviour is then imitated by the younger child, with potentially harmful consequences.

Research objectives: Parental supervision reduces young children’s risk of unintentional injuries, but supervision by older siblings has been shown to increase risk. This study explored how and why this may be the case.

Methods: The supervision behaviours of mothers were compared to those of their older children when each was supervising a young relation in a setting having “contrived hazards”.

The researchers found that mothers were more proactive in supervising their children by actually removing hazards from the vicinity. Older siblings, however, tended to interact with the hazards in front of the children – effectively teaching them to do likewise.

It’s fairly well known that young children copy – particularly their older siblings. It’s how they learn, and the little ones tend to want to be “just like my big sister/brother”.

Indeed, the study found that this took place – children under the supervision of their older siblings were more likely to interact with the hazards in a similar way to their older supervisors.

Compounding this tendency of young children to behave in a more risky manner when supervised by a sibling, their older siblings were less alert to this behaviour than their mothers.

Everyone with younger brothers or sisters will be aware of the “you’re not my mom!” phenomenon; and again, the research bore this out. It showed how younger children have less respect for the authority of older siblings and are actually likely to behave in more risky ways when a parent is not present.

Could you keep your charges occupied?

The study concluded that the behaviour of both the young child and the supervisor contributed to increase the risk of injury when older children babysit for younger ones.

So it’s not necessarily a simple matter of raising awareness of risks among older children; it’s important for parents to also sit down with the younger child and explain that, in your absence, the older sibling is in charge.

It’s very common for older children to care for younger children within families, and this practice will not stop any time soon – particularly in such difficult economic times, when families can ill-afford to pay a babysitter.

However, research such as this is invaluable in helping parents to understand not only what the risks are when leaving older children to babysit younger ones – but why this should be the case.

Of course, the ideal solution is to employ a professional. But this just isn’t an option for many, so making information and guidance available to as many people as possible is vital. Parents should ensure that they know what they’re asking of their eldest – it’s a big responsibility, and providing them with as much information as possible will help to reduce the likelihood of injury occurring.

So parents: don’t be afraid of taking some time out, whether for work or for leisure – everyone needs time away from primary colours and Justin Bieber – but make sure you talk through what babysitting entails with all your children first.

RoSPA would love to hear from young babysitters about their experiences, especially examples where the intervention of a babysitter has prevented a serious injury to a child in their care. Please email Cassius Francis at if you think you can help.

Jenny McWhirter, RoSPA’s risk education adviser

2 Comments to “Babysitting: a hazardous occupation!”

  1. A realistic and useful view. We will use this with information with Safestart – the parenting programme at Safeside.

    • Thanks Rob – I hope the information comes in useful. If you have any babysitting stories or positive case studies involving young people, please do let me know. We’re always on the lookout for real life stories.

      Jenny McWhirter

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